The Provocations of Camille Paglia
The maverick critic and scholar has championed great art, defended free speech, and offered groundbreaking analysis of popular culture.
The word “person” captures a concept so fundamental to Westerners that it can be jarring to discover that it once had a different meaning. Etymologically, “person” comes from the Latin word persona, which means “mask.” To be a person is to wear a mask, act out a role—what people today might call being fake.
But to Camille Paglia, the dissident social critic, a mask does not conceal a person’s true nature; it helps reveal it. This is why Halloween was her favorite holiday as a child. It was “a fantastic opportunity,” she told an interviewer recently, “to enact one’s repressed and forbidden self—which in my case was male.” When she was five, she dressed up as Robin Hood; at seven, she was a Roman soldier; at eight, Napoleon; at nine, Hamlet. “These masks,” Paglia told me in Philadelphia recently, “are parts of myself.”
Paglia, 72, grew up in the 1950s, when girls played house, not Hamlet. It was an unforgiving time to be different. As a fifth-grader, Paglia shoved a boy in order to be first in line; her teacher made her look up “aggressive” in the dictionary after school, an exercise that left her in tears. But at Halloween, she could defy conventions. Eventually, she would explain not only her personality but also the development of Western civilization through sexual masks. “I show how much of Western life, art, and thought,” she writes in Sexual Personae, her 735-page history of Western culture, “is ruled by personality, which the book traces through recurrent types of personae (‘masks’).”
A professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984, Paglia became an intellectual celebrity after the 1990 publication of Sexual Personae, her first book, which carries the subtitle Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Melding history and psychology with art and literature and laced with references to popular culture, the book delivered a one-two punch to academe. A feminist critical of the modern women’s movement, Paglia insisted on the greatness of Western civilization, though it was already unfashionable to do so. And she asserted that its greatness resulted from a creative but violent tension between male and female—between the Apollonian male principle of order (civilization) and the Dionysian female principle of chaos (nature). Two of the book’s most quoted lines are “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts” and “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” Reading Sexual Personae, one reviewer wrote, was “a bit like being mugged.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, Paglia has once again found herself in the middle of the culture wars. Taking aim at the #MeToo movement, she told an interviewer that it is “ridiculous that any university ever tolerated a complaint of a girl coming in six months or a year after an event. If a real rape was committed, go frigging report it to the police.” In April, students at her university, upset by such statements, tried to de-platform Paglia, a lesbian who identifies as transgender. When they failed to get her scheduled lecture, “Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art,” canceled or moved off campus, they organized a protest during the talk—and someone pulled the fire alarm. Later, the protesters urged the university to replace Paglia with a “queer person of color.”
Fortunately, the university’s president, David Yager, did what many of his peers at other schools roiled by such protests have failed to do: issued a statement defending freedom of expression. “Artists over the centuries,” Yager wrote in an e-mail to campus, “have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: Not now, not at UArts.” Paglia was delighted. An outspoken defender of free speech, she is horrified by the rise of censorship in academia—and was especially aghast, given her own history, at Yale’s attempt to police students’ Halloween costumes in 2015.
In her latest book, an essay collection called Provocations, she states that she’d like to be remembered as a “dissident writer who defended free thought and free speech.” But Provocations is not just a polemic against political correctness. The career retrospective, which includes writings from the last 25 years, covers subjects like gender, education, popular culture, and art. It showcases Paglia’s sweeping scholarship and puckish irreverence for PC pieties. “To questioning young people drawn to the siren song of hormones and surgery,” she writes, “I say: Stay fluid! Stay free!”
The book also reveals Paglia’s humility, a quality usually concealed by what she calls her “raging egomania.” Provocations, she writes, is for people who see art “as a medium of intuition and revelation.” It’s for those who stand in awe before nature, “a vast and sublime force”; for people “who see life in spiritual terms as a quest for enlightenment”; and “for those who elevate free thought and free speech over all other values, including material considerations of wealth, status, or physical well-being.”
Behind that devotion to heterodoxy lies something softer. She admitted that she’s chosen to censor herself in front of her students, no longer teaching them, for example, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching, which was for years an important part of her course “The Art of Song Lyric.” “I don’t want to upset them. The historical material is too painful for a music class,” she said.
This reveals something important about Paglia. Her project in Provocations, and in much of her later work, is not to provoke simply for the sake of it, in the manner of, say, Milo Yiannopoulos. Her project is cultural populism. “I feel I should use my name recognition for service, for art,” she told the blog Bookslut in 2015. “I’m just a teacher in the classroom from beginning to end,” she added. Paglia sees culture, from the stories of the Bible to the paintings of Picasso to the ballads of Joni Mitchell, as a vast patchwork of meaning that inspires awe and delivers wisdom. She wants to bring the riches of art, literature, and religion to everyday people.
Like Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom who sprouted adult-like from the head of Zeus, Paglia appears to have entered the world fully formed. She was born in working-class Endicott, New York, in 1947, when thousands of immigrants were arriving in the upstate town looking for work in the shoe factories. Her mother, Lydia, and her four grandparents were Italian immigrants. Her father, Pasquale, was the only member of his family to attend college, later becoming a professor of Romance languages at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. “I got my intellectuality, studiousness, and severity from my father,” she told New York magazine in 1991. “And I got my energy, optimism, and practicality from my mother.” Her sister, Lenora, was born when Paglia was 14.
Paglia’s early childhood was, she said, a “total immersion in Italian culture.” She and her parents lived with her maternal grandparents in the Italian section of Endicott. Her paternal grandparents lived two long blocks away, next to a Sons of Italy hall. Though her parents spoke English at home, Paglia was otherwise surrounded by people who communicated in “mutually unintelligible Italian dialects.”
Endicott was in many ways like a rural Italian village—which meant that Paglia saw how gender dynamics worked in the premodern world. Her grandmothers were matriarchal, goddess-like figures, who ruled home and hearth. They dictated the affairs of Paglia’s daily life. “Eat!” they’d command her in Italian. “Sleep!” Even more severe were the petite elderly Italian ladies who would visit their homes. “You had to watch out for them,” she said, “because when they kissed you, they’d bite your earlobe.” When Paglia and her parents moved from Endicott to the top floor of a dairy farm in Oxford, New York, where her father taught high school Spanish and her mother worked as a teller at the local bank, she encountered more tough women—farmers working the animals and land. Paglia dedicated Sexual Personae to her grandmothers and a paternal aunt.
Looking back, Paglia saw that her grandmothers had their own sphere of power at home, separate from the male sphere—where older women ruled. “Young women were nothing” in that world, Paglia said. Today, it’s the opposite: women try to gain power in the male sphere of work and lose status culturally as they age. “You’re unhappy,” Paglia said of today’s professional women, “because you’re spending all day long in this mechanical professional world. But we willingly put up with that because we want the financial autonomy and freedom.”
Her childhood also instilled in her an appreciation of men, especially working-class men—the plumbers, factory workers, and policemen who keep the world going. Paglia’s paternal grandfather was a barber, and her maternal grandfather operated a leather-stretching device at the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory. Four of her uncles served in the military during World War II, and her father was an army paratrooper. “One of the reasons I’m not anti-male,” Paglia told me, “is because I saw the sacrifices made by my father’s generation in those men.”
Paglia encountered her first works of art with her family at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Endicott. The stained-glass windows and polychrome statues of the saints entranced her. So did the large art book Art Treasures of the Louvre, which her father brought back from France after spending a year at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. Five-year-old Camille was enchanted by the “gorgeous plates, in chronological order, of the history of oil painting.” One image made a special impression—a big photograph of a marble sculpture of the goddess Diana, the huntress, by the School of Fontainebleau. Paglia hung the image in her room. “I loved the idea of the armed woman,” she said. Prekindergarten, she made her first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Egyptian section mesmerized her. “I can remember very clearly that you could smell the age, the mummy casing, the wood.”
The other “overwhelming” experience she remembers from her early childhood is seeing the movie Show Boat, starring Ava Gardner, at the theater with her parents when she was four. This ignited Paglia’s passion for popular culture, “the master mythology of my postwar generation.” Gardner, Paglia’s “first crush,” was a goddess in the Hollywood pantheon. “When she’s performing ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,’ ” Paglia said, “and they have her face filling the big screen—this is what knocked me out!” She admired Gardner’s glamour and confidence. “The quality she exudes on screen is kind of eerie, almost, like, vampiric.”
Paglia laments the loss in today’s world of the wonder that defined her childhood. “When I was young,” she said, “there was all this energy, color, grandeur exploding from the big screen.” But today, people increasingly watch videos on the small screens of their phones or laptops. When she was a child, the Met overwhelmed her senses and filled her with awe. Today, the museum feels too sanitized, the objects too remote. “I can’t believe they redesigned it with all those stupid glass cases!” she said.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Paglia’s favorite book as a child was about a girl living in a land of wonder. She still owns the worn copies of Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland that her parents read to her as a child. She loved Lewis Carroll’s playful language. She memorized lines from the story, like the Red Queen’s command “Remove the joint!” “It was the first thing that I heard that inspired me about language,” Paglia said about Through the Looking Glass. “It’s so crisp and witty.”
She also credits Time and Oscar Wilde’s epigrams with teaching her to write in a condensed and succinct manner. “I love the one-liner, the axiom. I adore and parody them in my work,” she said. “Like in Sexual Personae, I’m talking about the status of cats in ancient Egypt and I say, ‘The cat is the least Christian inhabitant of the average home.’ ” She laughed. “I’m parodying the marketing analysis of ‘average home.’” But the greatest sentence she ever wrote, she said, is “God is man’s greatest idea.”
In adolescence, she wrote poetry and kept notebooks in which she’d copy prose that she admired from newspapers or novels, studying the passages to understand what made them good. Her writing would eventually bring her into contact with feminism for the first time. At 14, after seeing an item about Amelia Earhart in the newspaper, she began obsessively researching the feminist aviator, with the goal of writing a book about her. Earhart became a symbol to Paglia of “female freedom, thought, and movement.” As she researched Earhart, she also encountered figures such as politician Clare Boothe Luce, journalist Dorothy Thompson, and aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “These women of the twenties and thirties were amazing pioneers without all this male bashing that goes on now,” Paglia said.
She worked on the Earhart project for three years, showing an academic’s patience and proficiency for research. By this point, she knew she wanted to be a scholar when she grew up. She wrote nearly 300 letters of inquiry, spent Saturdays at the Syracuse public library, and made pilgrimages to Earhart sites during family road trips. But Paglia drifted from the Earhart project after she turned 16, in 1963. For her birthday that year, one of her father’s colleagues, a Belgian woman, gave her a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Reading it changed Paglia’s life. “I date my intellectual independence from that moment,” she wrote.
In Beauvoir, she found not only a vision of feminism but also a model. “Her commanding voice and enormous historical scope were huge inspirations for me,” she said. “She’s so magisterial and did such copious scholarship.”
After reading The Second Sex, Paglia “began to imagine a vaster project, which would build on Beauvoir and go beyond her.” That project began to take shape when Paglia was a student at Harpur College at SUNY Binghamton between 1964 and 1968. She majored in English and began writing essays on gender and sexual ambiguity in literature that would shape her ideas in Sexual Personae. “No one,” she said, “was thinking about sex in those days in academe.”
After graduating as valedictorian from Harpur, Paglia landed at Yale in 1968 for graduate school in English literature. It was a year of revolutionary social change, but at Yale, traditionalism ruled, especially in the English department, where Beat poetry and leftist literary critics like Leslie Fiedler, two major influences on Paglia, were disdained. Her genteel, WASP professors didn’t know what to make of this young woman decked out in psychedelic outfits who wrote about Freud and sex in her papers. One professor felt so uneasy around Paglia that he nervously rolled and unrolled his necktie with his fingers whenever she spoke in class. When rumors circulated that Paglia wanted to write a doctoral dissertation about sex in art, Harold Bloom summoned her to his office and declared, “My dear, I am the only one who can direct that dissertation!”
Paglia resisted the reigning approach to literature of the time, the New Criticism, whose epicenter was Yale. The twentieth-century literary movement championed “textual explication,” or close readings, of literary works, treating them as self-contained objects. Paglia admired the “microscopic” method but wanted much more—to ground literature in history, biography, and psychology, which included sex. That became the aim of her dissertation, originally called “The Androgynous Dream” and later known as Sexual Personae. Paglia ransacked Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library looking for different approaches to literature. She read Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Erich Neumann, and Carl Jung, but the scholar who floored her was Sir James George Frazer. His seminal work The Golden Bough was a synthesis of myth. “My largest ambition,” Paglia writes in her preface to Sexual Personae, is “to fuse Frazer with Freud.”
Sterling Library was a gothic temple to scholarship—and Paglia worked with the reverence of a medieval monk. “To be a scholar,” Paglia has written, “is the greatest of vocations: to compose a devout commentary, a talmud, on the created world.” Her mother, she likes to point out, was born near the sixth-century monastery where Thomas Aquinas was educated. Her two mentors, Milton Kessler and Harold Bloom, were “visionary rabbis.” “Universities descend from medieval institutions,” she told me, “that were [intended] to train clergy, and there’s always been a model of withdrawal from the world and contemplation and honor and ethics in the academic tradition.”
Her devotion to this noble vision explains why Paglia was appalled by what happened next in academia. In the early 1970s, as she was finishing her doctoral course work, a new school of literary studies gained its first U.S. foothold at Yale and would eventually overthrow New Criticism as the main way academics would interpret texts in English departments across the country. It was known by many names: post-structuralism, continental theory, and deconstruction. Its leaders were the French theorists Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault.
Paglia was repelled by the pretensions of these French thinkers. Though she had her problems with the “old-guard professors at the Yale Graduate School,” she recognized them as “genuine scholars, passionately devoted to study and learning. They believed they had a moral obligation to seek the truth and to express it as accurately as they could,” she writes in Provocations. But the French theorists and their converts in American universities were “like high priests murmuring to each other.” Rather than revealing and clarifying the meaning of literature, they obscured it.
As Paglia found herself on the wrong side of literary fashion, she also found herself at odds with feminism. In 1970, Paglia, a lover of rock and roll, told members of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band that she thought the Rolling Stones’ song “Under My Thumb” was a work of art. They considered the song sexist and “went into a rage,” Paglia wrote, and “surrounded me, practically spat in my face, literally my back was to the wall.” In another incident, Paglia was at dinner with some women professors who “went ballistic” on her and told her she’d been “brainwashed by male scientists” because she alluded to hormonal differences between the sexes. “I was rebuffed and rejected from the women’s movement from day one,” Paglia said.
The irony was that Paglia had always been a feminist. In high school, she wrote a letter to the editor of Newsweek, which was published in the magazine, about Amelia Earhart’s pioneering status as a woman aviator. In college, she rebelled against the sexist parietal rules that imposed curfews on women but not men. And in her first job, as a professor at Bennington College, originally an all-girls’ school that had gone co-ed two years before Paglia arrived, she kicked a male student in the derriere for an offensive nightclub skit he had performed on campus. “He sprawled out on the floor, and his glasses flew!” Some of the women students, delighted, gave Paglia the Award of the Order of the Golden Boot, a poster with an image of a gleaming yellow Frye boot that Paglia had worn to do the deed. But after a final incident, at a dance, where Paglia got into a fistfight with another student, it was Bennington’s turn to try to give her the boot. In the end, Paglia accepted a settlement and quietly resigned.
Paglia said that Bennington is where she “grew up.” She realized that her “do your own thing” attitude was wasting the time of her colleagues and students and diverting her from her vocation as a teacher. When I asked about the “kick story,” Paglia was bashful. “Oh, my God, when I look back—oh, my God,” she said. She held her hands up to her face. “That was so wrong,” she said. “Who am I, a free-speech militant?” In an interview published in Provocations, Paglia said that the one thing she would edit from her past is “the arrogantly militant Amazon feminism which I foolishly tried to impose” at Bennington. “Deep social change,” she learned, “takes time.”
The early 1980s were Paglia’s wilderness years. Unable to find steady employment in academia, she worked to finish Sexual Personae, which was rejected by five agents and seven publishers. When I asked Paglia if she had despaired that her work would never reach an audience, she mentioned Emily Dickinson, dubbed “Madame de Sade” in Sexual Personae, who was virtually unknown in her day. Whenever Paglia felt frustrated by her lack of success, she reminded herself “how a great genius like Dickinson got absolutely nothing back from her staggeringly innovative work.”
Her fate would not be Dickinson’s, however. Thanks to a chance meeting that Paglia had with a senior editor of Yale University Press, Sexual Personae would appear in February 1990, but with little fanfare—no publicity, no marketing, no picture of the author on the flap. Still, it started making its way into the hands of influential readers. One was Herbert Golder, a classics professor at Boston University and the editor of Arion, a literary journal. He contacted Paglia and asked if she’d review two books on classical antiquity by openly gay academics. When Paglia read the books, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, by David M. Halperin, and The Constraints of Desire, by John J. Winkler, she was appalled. When post-structuralism took root at Yale in the early 1970s, Paglia assumed that it would be a short-lived fad. “Not until I read those awful two books,” she said, “did I realize how bad the situation was—and that what was going on was the literal destruction of a scholarly tradition that began in medieval monasteries and universities.”
Perceiving that the contamination of the humanities by theory represented a crisis for higher education, she devoted the next six months to researching and writing a mega-essay called “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” for Arion. According to Paglia, Bloom told her that she was wasting her time. But to Paglia, nothing was more important than saving the universities from the “soulless, beady-eyed careerists” who “cynically deny the possibility of meaning” in the great works of the past and have ruined the humanities with their “shallow, juvenile attitude toward culture.” During our conversation, Paglia called them “absolutely the most corrupt and evil individuals on the landscape.”
In “Junk Bonds,” she argued that Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers were frauds. “These minor French theorists,” she wrote in a version of the essay that appeared in the New York Times Book Review, “have had a disastrous effect on American education. Lacan encourages pompous bombast and Foucault teaches cheap cynicism, while Derrida’s aggressive method, called deconstruction, systematically trashes high culture by reducing everything to language and then making language destroy itself.” “Junk Bonds” contains one of Paglia’s other favorite sentences: “Better Jehovah than Foucault.”
To Paglia, it made no sense to study French theorists in America. Their work, she argued in a Fordham University lecture in 2000, is specific to French language and to the culture of postwar Europe, and it doesn’t transfer to the Anglo-American tradition, where pragmatism and Romanticism infuse the arts. In the lecture, “The North American Intellectual Tradition,” republished in Provocations, she offers a counter-canon to Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault in the critics Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman O. Brown. Their theories of culture, she told me, rely on “social observation of real people, real experiences, and of nature itself and the material world.”
As Paglia worked on “Junk Bonds,” a generally favorable review of Sexual Personae appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Then, in November 1990, she gave a slide lecture about the history of women in Hollywood at the 92nd Street Y, the New York cultural center. The novelist and journalist Francesca Stanfill attended and approached Paglia about writing a magazine profile on her. Because Paglia’s talk had celebrated Madonna, the New York Times invited her to write about the controversy over alleged pornography in Madonna’s music video for “Justify My Love.”
“Madonna—Finally, a Real Feminist,” appeared in December 1990, and it rocketed Paglia to fame. A month later, her notoriety was secured when she wrote an op-ed on date rape for Newsday, which has become her most reprinted piece of writing. Another month later, New York magazine published “Woman Warrior,” Stanfill’s cover story about Paglia. After “Junk Bonds” appeared in Arion, publications around the country excerpted it, including the New York Times Book Review, which ran it on its front page in May 1991 with the headline “Ninnies, Pedants, Tyrants and Other Academics.” When Paglia lectured at MIT in September of that year, she drew an overflow audience of thousands of people.
Paglia had broken through. She was called the second Marshall McLuhan and “the academic Joan Rivers.” New Yorker cartoonists caricatured her, and the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column even chronicled her doings. Paglia seemed to relish her celebrity.
Paglia’s next two books—Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps and Tramps—were essay collections with extensive appendixes documenting her media appearances and mentions, but they also contained real scholarship. Paglia’s essays can leave readers with the impression that she contains the whole of Western civilization in her mind. In her slender 1998 book The Birds, for example, published by the British Film Institute, she writes that the Hitchcock classic is “in the main line of British Romanticism, descending from the raw nature-tableaux and sinister femmes fatales of Coleridge.”
For lovers of the humanities, her subsequent volumes, Break, Blow, Burn (about poetry, and published in 2005) and Glittering Images (about art, and appearing in 2012), are the jewels in the Paglia canon. Her mission in these books is to “save culture from theory,” in the words of the poet Clive James. “Technical analysis of a poem is like breaking down a car engine,” she writes, “which has to be reassembled to run again. Theorists childishly smash up their subjects and leave the disjecta membra like litter.” Paglia instead sought to make the arts accessible and relevant to ordinary readers through a series of concise, smart explications of the greatest works of Western civilization, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” to Titian’s Venus with a Mirror and Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow.
Both books end with Paglia’s signature nod to pop culture. The final poem covered in Break, Blow, Burn is Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” and the last essay in Glittering Images is a tribute to the Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith. Mitchell’s ballad, she writes, is a commentary on the 1960s, “a harrowing lament for hopes dashed and energies tragically wasted.” George Lucas, meanwhile, was the “only” cultural figure “during the decades bridging the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” with “the pioneering boldness and world impact that we associate with the early masters of avant-garde modernism.” To Paglia, filmmakers like Lucas are our modern mythmakers; singers like Joni Mitchell, our modern bards.
But Paglia worries that we are moving into a “soulless future” as art, literature, and religion recede from the public square. In one essay in Provocations, “The Magic of Images,” she writes that today’s young adults “are unmoored from the mother ship of culture.” For Paglia’s generation, popular culture was the “brash alternative” to religion, literature, and the fine arts. For young adults these days, raised on the “darting images” of television and social media, it is the culture. Manic, jittery, and kinetic, it has produced adults with the same qualities.
To Paglia, the antidote to this is the kind of education she received at Harpur College, which counterbalances the sensory immediacy of pop with the philosophical depth of complex high art. But unless they deliberately seek them out, today’s students are rarely exposed to the greatest and most influential works of Western civilization. What they often encounter instead is a watered-down Marxism that sees the world in terms of society, politics, and economics—a materialistic philosophy that has no sense of the spiritual or sublime.
“That’s why they’re in a terrible fever and so emotional,” Paglia said. “There is a total vacuum in their view of life. They don’t have religion any longer. Religion teaches you metaphysics. It shows you how to examine yourself and ask questions about your relationship with the universe.” The Bible, she said, is “one of the greatest books ever written.”
Instead of finding meaning in religion or culture, today’s new generation has turned to politics. This, Paglia said, is “absolute idolatry.” Her students believe that “human happiness is possible through social reform—that utopia is possible.” A much better understanding of human nature is found in the great works of art and literature, which reveal “the tragic view of life.” The fact that Break, Blow, Burn became a national bestseller reveals that there is a craving for the kind of education Paglia is advocating.
The route to a renaissance in education and the arts, she argues, lies in the study of religion. “All art began as religion,” Paglia said in a debate at the Yale Political Union in 2017. Its metaphysics “frees the mind from parochial entrapment in the immediate social environment.” Its “stress on personal responsibility for the condition of the soul,” she added, “releases the individual from irrational blame of others.” And it has the potential to satisfy students’ existential yearnings. In her remarks at Yale, published in Provocations, Paglia argued that college students should be taught religion as culture, not morality, and that a study of comparative religion is the “true multiculturalism.”
Her fascination with comparative religion began as a college student. Like many spiritual seekers of her generation, she was drawn to mysticism, nature, and the occult. The British scholar Alan Watts, who helped to popularize Zen Buddhism in America, had a profound influence on her. His books on Eastern and Western culture, “comparing the way a Hindu or Buddhist sees the world to the way a Judeo-Christian sees the world,” gave her the multicultural education she advocates for students today.
In a brilliant essay in Provocations, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness,” she argues that the spiritual yearnings of her generation gave rise to the New Age movement that flowered in the 1980s and 1990s. She “absolutely” considers herself part of that movement, she said. Though acknowledging that it is “choked with debris,” Paglia believes that New Age “deserves respect for its attunement to nature and its search for meaning at a time when neither nature nor meaning is valued in discourse in the humanities.” It has a “core of perennial wisdom” that draws from “Asian religion, European paganism, and Native American nature-cult.”
Her latest research project is New Age to the core. Ten years ago, as she was researching Glittering Images, she started noticing odd stone formations near her home in the Philadelphia suburbs. Wondering what they could be, she went to the library at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and inspected the vast collection on Native American culture. Eventually, she became convinced that these stone formations had religious significance. She is now working on a book about the nature religion of Native Americans of the Northeast. “I’ve found stone objects that are mind-boggling,” she said. “I now can just cross a lawn and find fragments of artifacts everywhere. I have many tools—scrapers, hammers, and knife blades, some of them still razor sharp,” she said. Stone tools in Pennsylvania “may date from 10,000 BC, which makes them older than the pyramids of Egypt.”
Cosmic reality is both wondrous and terrifying to her. “The sublime,” she said, “opens up the vastness of the universe, in which human beings and their works are small and nothing!” The world may be less enchanted than it was when Paglia was a child, but she still stands in awe of it. Her life’s work has been to share that message with others.
Top Photo: In her latest essay collection, "Provocations," Paglia writes that she wants to be remembered as a “dissident writer” who defended free thought. (PETER KRAMER/BRAVO/NBCU PHOTO BANK/GETTY IMAGES)
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